Mike James was a human pinball, bowling ball and wrecking ball as he bounced, spun, plowed and churned through North Carolina State’s defense, splitting, upending and shedding seven would-be tacklers who sprawled on the field in his wake.
Dalton Botts, the slim punter, caught a fake field goal snap, tucked the football under his forearm and did a convincing Larry Csonka impersonation as he dragged a pack of linemen to the four-yard line.
Allen Hurns, with eyes in the back of his head and the soles of his feet, balanced on the tightrope that separates inbounds from out-of-bounds, collected a 14-yard pass over his shoulder, scuffed his toes on the edge of the green end zone while falling down, and looked up just in time to see the referee signaling touchdown.
On three remarkable plays, James, Botts and Hurns demonstrated the sort of extra effort that distinguishes the 2012 University of Miami football team from its recent predecessors.
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The relentlessness they embody is what enabled the Hurricanes to hang on against N.C. State and seize the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left on Saturday in a wild thriller similar to last week’s overtime victory at Georgia Tech.
No OT this time, to the relief of everyone depleted by the sun and humidity of a brutal September day. Final score: Miami 44, N.C. State 37, Heat Index 99.
“I’m going to go full body cramp any minute,” coach Al Golden said afterward, chugging Gatorade.
He talked about his exciting, exasperating team while wiping sweat from his brow with a towel that was slung over his shoulder.
“I accepted a long time ago that this would be who we are this year,” Golden said. “We’re not dominant in any one phase. It’s just survive and advance.”
So when he saw quarterback Stephen Morris throw a 62-yard pass that became a touchdown catch by Phillip Dorsett less than two minutes after N.C. State had tied the score on a 50-yard field goal, his reaction was understandable.
“Holy [expletive]!” is how he described it, adding: “I’m sorry. I’m so tired I’m delusional.”
He’s also proud of the progress he’s witnessing.
“We’re not a perfect team,” he said. “You should hear the headsets. Whether it’s to be down 17 last week or to have them come roaring back this week, you have to be mentally tough to respond, and I think our team [was].”
Morris responded, accruing 566 passing yards to set a UM and ACC record. So did Brandon McGee when he ripped the ball out of the hands of a receiver on the threshold of scoring. Then there was the marauding duo of defensive end Jelani Hamilton and linebacker Nantambu-Akil Fentress, who ambushed N.C. State’s quarterback for a safety. Thomas Finnie’s interception gave Miami its last-gasp chance.
The Hurricanes are young and unpolished. But Golden’s influence is taking hold. Crisp tackles. Precise routes. Finished plays. The sloppiness and wheezing that Golden observed upon arrival is not tolerated. A half-baked approach has been replaced by keen attention to detail.
“WE’RE BAAACK!” read one fan’s sign.
“WE’RE GETTING THERE!” would be more accurate.
Miami is 4-1 with a game against Notre Dame at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Saturday night. UM’s performance against the undefeated Irish will be much more telling than what we’ve seen against mushy ACC competition.
N.C. State was on a three-game winning streak before being plunged into the cauldron of Sun Life Stadium. A high-noon start afforded UM somewhat of a home-field advantage, but certainly not a home-seats advantage. The stadium was about one-third full on a blistering afternoon. A later kickoff would have lured more spectators to watch a team that needs and deserves all the support it can get. The TV schedulers who rule the sports world were not merciful for this ACC matchup.
“I want to thank the fans,” Golden said. “I know it’s hot out there. Our kids treat the sun as an ally, not an enemy.”
Those 2 p.m. midsummer team runs that McGee recalled with a weary smile paid off for UM. When OT seemed inevitable on third down and 11 from UM’s 38-yard line, Morris scrambled to his right, could have looked at his wristwatch if he had one on, scanned the field, saw Dorsett open near the end zone behind three defensive backs. He planted his left foot and, “Here goes nothing,” Morris said. “People dream about that but it’s kind of crazy when you’re in the moment. I was saying before the game, ‘Yo, let’s go deep, let’s attack, let’s have fun.’”
And on the other end, Dorsett was thinking: “I got to catch this, I got to catch this. I could see the corner couldn’t get there. Stephen threw it so far.”
N.C. State could not contain Morris or cover Dorsett.
“It’s like we were running in sand,” said N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien, who said he hadn’t seen a team commit so many mistakes in 38 years of coaching.
UM played an uneven game, too.
The Hurricanes have lots of options on offense. They gained 651 yards. Dorsett and Rashawn Scott led nine receivers by combining for 371 yards and four touchdowns. But after a three-touchdown spurt in a 3 minutes, 33 seconds span, there was a long lull until the end of the third quarter. Kicker Jake Wieclaw had a bad day, missing three field goals. And James and Duke Johnson didn’t get enough carries.
“Our running game wasn’t there,” Morris said. “I left a couple touchdowns out there. As a quarterback, that drives me crazy.”
On defense, lots of vulnerability. The Canes forced six turnovers but gave up 664 yards — second most in school history. They allowed four touchdown passes, two out of two fourth-down conversions and four out of five red zone conversions. They allowed more than 30 points for the fourth time; throw out the 10 points Bethune-Cookman scored and UM’s opponents are averaging 39.2 points.
Golden isn’t kidding himself. He says his players have a long way to go. But the key is, they’re willing to go the extra mile to get there.